The Best Cheap Plants for Improving Indoor Air Quality

by Elizabeth Lang on 9 January 2013 12 comments

I don't have much of a green thumb. In fact, I've managed to kill every house plant I've ever owned — even things as basic as cactus and bamboo. But it's not for lack of trying. We currently have four plants in our home, all still living (or eking by) after owning them for the past year. However, I imagine that sometime soon I will again have to invest in another plant.

Because my house seems to be a plant death trap, it's necessary that I buy plants that are on the cheaper side. I've also been intrigued by plants that improve the air quality of my home. After doing some research I've put together this set of the best plants that will improve your indoor air quality — all while on a budget. (See also: 6 Mosquito-Repellent Plants With a Dual Purpose)

Plants That Improve Air Quality: The Research

There are two great sources to learn about plants that improve indoor air quality: The NASA Clear Air Study (PDF), and a TED talk by Kamal Meattle entitled "How to Grow Fresh Air." If you'd rather see a condensed version than read through the study or watch the video, Wikipedia has a great chart that lists air-filtering plants.

In short, the research examines how various pollutants — including formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, ammonia, and benzene — are filtered by indoor house plants. (Don't think these are in your home's air? Sadly, they are released by things as common as ink, foam, and plastic bags.) It turns out that in a fairly short span of time, plants can make a dramatic difference in your air quality. Meattle recommends as many as four plants per person (depending on the plant), but I think that one is better than none.

Best Plants for Indoor Air Quality

Based on these studies, I selected the plants that either Meattle listed in his talk or those plants that filtered four or five pollutants summarized by the Air Filtering Plants list mentioned above. I've then ranked them by price as found using Google's Shopping tool to determine the best cheap plants for the best indoor air quality.

1. Mother-in-Law's Tongue / Snake Plant

Mother-in-Law's Tongue is recommended by Meattle and the NASA study. Depending on the size of the plant and the number of stems, Mother-in-Law's Tongue will cost you anywhere from $15 for a basic plant to $70 at Sam's Club for a snake plant with 50 stems. It filters formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, and benzene. It's recommended that you put it in the bedroom, as it converts CO2 into oxygen at night.

2. Golden Pothos / Devil's Ivy / Money Plant (Epipremnum Aureum)

Golden Pothos or Devil's Ivy is recommended by Meattle and NASA and can be easily purchased at Home Depot and Walmart (I've even seen it at Ikea) for starting around $15. It filters formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, and benzene.

3. Pot Mum or Florist's Chrysanthemum

The Pot Mum is not readily available as a potted plant online, but it's very frugal if you're up for a little bit of work. For under $5 you can buy seeds and grow your own. (I didn’t rank it as the top frugal choice because of the extra work required to grow it.) The Chysanthemum flowers nicely and removes formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, ammonia, and benzene from the air.

4. Peace Lily

Peace Lilies are beautiful plants and can be purchased for between $35-$50 depending on the plant's size. Like the Pot Mum, it filters formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, ammonia, and benzene.

5. Red-Edged Dracaena

Recommended by NASA, the red-edged dracaena is found in many retail stores and online starting at around $35. This plant filters formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, and benzene.

6. Areca Palm

Meattle suggests this plant (but it wasn't included in the NASA study) because of its oxygen-making qualities. It filters xylene and toluene. It's a much larger plant than the others (and looks great in the living room), and it starts at around $45 per plant.

Personally, I would mix up the flowering plants (the Peace Lily and Pot Mum) with the non-flowering plants for the most variety, but I like that Meattle suggests just three plants (the Areca Palm, Mother-in-Law's Tongue, and Money Plant). The real question — which is hardest to kill for a non-gardener like me?

Do you have plants in your home specifically to improve air quality? Do they seem to help?

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Scott

Snake Plants are mildly toxic for cats. Not so good unless you don't mind cat vomit and diarrhea deposits in your bedroom. I didn't check the others on the list.

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Guest

If you have cats, look up all of these plants on the ASPCA's website first as I found that the areca palm was the only plant listed that was non-toxic to cats.

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Peppermint Tea

I've work in a flower store for years, and we have always had at least one store cat living there. None of our cats have ever gotten sick from eating plants. Most of the plants on the list are pretty common, and we usually have at least some of them around at all times. The cats just don't seem particularly interested in most of the plants. Our current cat loves to chew grass and lysianthus buds, but has never suffered ill effects from it.
It doesn't hurt to be careful, but unless your cat gets really excited about tasting everything, it's probably not something you have to worry about.

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Guest

It would have been nice to see pictures of what these plants looked like.

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Guest

Why, I don't see any photos of this plants? :(

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Guest

As a plant afficianado, both at home and office, I appreciate this list. Thanks for the research! If I'm going to buy something green and growing, knowing that it improves my environment is an added bonus.

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Purchase Wisely

Wow, the prices listed are very high - go to your local Home Depot, Target (if it carries houseplants) or even 99 Cent store to find very inexpensive houseplants, including some of these. If you can find them at the 99 Cent store you may need to give them a little extra care at first, since those are usually not in the best shape. I live in Southern California and can get any of these for $5-$10 in a small-to-medium sized pot., even at the Armstrong Nursery nearby.

The Devil's Ivy is especially common, and can be even cheaper if you know someone who has one - with their permission (of course) snip off a 4-6 inch runner, making sure it has a few of the nubs near the base of at least a couple of the the leaf stems. Put the runner in a glass of water with the nubs submerged, and in a couple of weeks you'll see roots have developed from the nubs. Pot it and you have a plant for the cost of a little patience.

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Guest

spider plants and boston fern are good air cleaners that are also non-toxic for pets. Aloe is also good. Some cats will eat it and it can be tough for them to digest but it also had uses as it's salve can be used to treat cuts and burns. Aloe is good for the bedroom as it cleans air overnight.

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Stephen

This is a really interesting article, the topic of which I never considered before. Incorporating plants like these will be great for both our home and office. Thanks for the insight.

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lizy

I don't have a green thumb either :) ...but because of your wonderful tips, now I'm planning to have some plants in my home. Thanks for the tips :)

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Dee Johnson

I've never really had house plants because I've never been able to grow them. I seem to have a black thumb. Pardon my ignorance, but do these or most house plants need sunlight or are lights in the house enough for them? I only have a few windows that get sunlight and would love to try and have some plants in the house. Thanks!

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Guest

There is a permanent solution for poor indoor air-quality problems the ionic paint additive is a blend of 27 natural rare-earth minerals that are ground into a fine powder then mixed with interior wall paint, when applied to the walls in a room. Air-ReNu, cleans the air of any toxic impurities and odours, one application will remain effective for 10-12 years.